Dhaka Courier

Environmental Politics of Water Security in South Asia


Water forms anywhere – oceans, rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, wetlands etc. is a fundamental source of energy for economic development. Water bodies within a country does not emerge any conflict to manage and share. In terms of trans-boundary water bodies, sometimes water conflict is created among diverse nations. If we consider the strategy of sustainable development, proper water sharing treaty between nations is needed.  In general, South Asia is globally known as poor sanitation, huge population, limited land resources and anthropogenic and natural hazards. There are about 54 trans-boundary rivers between Bangladesh and India. Apart from that, the river system of Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna (GBM) flows in the course of five countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal. Context demands to refurbish from poorest region into development hub, time offers to employ effective water negotiation. Global forward looking agenda is water for all, and obviously the mass people oriented environmental politics facilitates water security in South Asia.

Setting the Scene

Water resources sharing between the countries situated in the same basin of a particular international river has occupied a significant place in the diplomatic relationship between the countries for obvious reason. In a study, by Washington-based group Population Action International says, 40 countries faced chronic water shortages at the beginning of the 2010’s. It predicted that the number would increase to nearly 60 by 2050. History shows, since 1948 at least 37 major incidents of acute conflict over water.

There are approximately 276 trans-boundary river basins on the planet with a geographical area covering almost half of the earth’s surface. 145 states have territory in these basins, 30 country lie entirely within them. But around two-thirds of the world’s trans-boundary rivers do not have a cooperative management framework. History shows, since 1948 world faces 37 incidents of acute conflict over water. Many of the world's great rivers flow across national frontiers, and over the centuries there have been disputes. These have only sharpened as environmental issues have compounded age-old conflicts over water-sharing.

In this context, UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) adopted the General Comment No. 15: The Right to Water (Arts. 11 and 12 of the Covenant) that declared water is a human right. The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. The right to water clearly falls within the category of guarantees essential for securing an adequate standard of living, particularly since it is one of the most fundamental conditions for survival. Water is a prerequisite for the realization of other fundamental human rights. This declaration was a decisive progress, at the international level, in terms of legal protection of the right to water. But this was not a legally binding document. There is no way to force sovereign states to comply with it, and there is no obligation to settle disputes. This is why co-operational approach between countries plays a vital role in water sharing issues.

Ground Reality of Water Resources in South Asia

At a glance, let us look at the ground reality. The world runs on water. There are approximately 276 trans-boundary river basins on the planet with a geographical area covering almost half of the earth’s surface. 145 states have territory in these basins, 30 country lie entirely within them. These shared international rivers are the sources of 60% of freshwater supplies and provides home to at least three billion people, 40% of the world population. World population grows day by day. So the demand of water grows in all countries and these shared resources be increasingly drawn upon to meet the competing needs of billions of people for drinking water, food, energy and industrial production. Less water would be left, often of much lesser quality to sustain ecosystems and to meet people's future demands.

When we look back to the Himalayan Region, we find that the countries of the region offer vast opportunities for optimal water resources development and management through collaborative efforts. Water should be treated here as a social and cultural good, and not primarily as an economic good.

Improved water resource management in this Himalayan and downstream countries is essential for the sustainable development.  The Himalayan region extends 3,500 km over all or part of eight countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan) from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. The Himalayan is the source of ten large Asian river systems – the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe), and Tarim (Dayan), which provides water, ecosystem services, and the basis for livelihoods to a population of around 210.53 million people in the region. The river basins of these rivers provide water to 1.3 billion people, a fifth of the world’s population.

State of India-Bangladesh Water Resources

Bangladesh is a river based country. Water will be the major factor for Bangladesh's future development. It will also be the number one issue in Indo-Bangla relationship.  That's why co-operational approach is essential, especially for countries such as Bangladesh where vast areas are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Probably, this prescient thought as the leader of a newly born state the Father of the Nation of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Shaikh Mujibur Rahman pressed the then Indian Prime Minister of India Srimati Indira Gandhi to set up a bilateral working group to work for the common interests and sharing of water resources, irrigation, floods and cyclones control. When Indo-Bangladesh Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace signed on 19 March, 1972 the two leaders agreed to include Article VI of the treaty provides, as stated “both the nations agree to take joint action in the field of flood control, river basin development and development of hydroelectric power and irrigation”. Pursuant to this treaty an Indo-Bangle Joint River Commission (JRC) was established in 1972 for carrying out a comprehensive study of the river system. From 1975 to 1996 in a changed perspective, India diverted as much as 60 to 90 percent of the Ganges's dry-season flows. In 1996 under the initiative of the Bangladesh's elected Government headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, India and Bangladesh signed the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty, which regulates the Ganges sharing waters at Farakka. Bangladesh is ensured a fair share of the flow reaching the dam during the dry season. And it is now recognized that the studies and reports of the JRC contributed directly to resolve the dispute over the sharing of the Ganges Waters.

Though the center of Indo-Bangla disputes over the Ganges waters sharing has been solved, these two countries still has other 53 trans-boundary river problem to solve.  So water is the main concern between these two countries. The Teesta, Tipaimuk dam on the Borak River and India's river linking project have been now a bone of contention between two countries. Since, Bangladesh is the downstream country the quantum of water; it has access to dependent on India which is the upper riparian.

Regional Integration towards Sustainable Water Security

Back to the potentialities of the cooperative development of the Himalayan countries, we see that The Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna (GBM) river system flows through five countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal – characterized by large population, limited land resources, and frequent floods and natural hazards. Although the GBM region is well endowed with water sources, this is one of the poorest regions in the world. Its economy and human and environmental health depend on water, and water is thus at the heart of sustainable development, economic growth, and poverty reduction. Unified effort can enable the people of this region to achieve multiple benefits through multi-purpose river projects that store monsoon water, mitigate the effects of floods and droughts, augment dry season river flows, expand irrigation and navigation facilities, generate hydropower, and enhance energy and environmental security. For example, there is tremendous potential for construction of reservoirs in Nepal which would augment the dry season flows of the Ganges by about 188,500 cusecs.  The dams in Nepal would also provide multi-purpose benefits like hydropower having a potential of about 83,000 MW, flood moderation, irrigation expansion and navigation. Bhutan too has a hydropower generation potential of about 30,000 MW. The GBM has an excellent opportunity for generating an enormous amount of hydropower. In total, the GBM river system is estimated to have about 200,000 MW of hydropower potential, of which half or more is considered to be feasible for harnessing. Exploitation of the region's hydropower potential could meet the energy requirements of the region and the surplus could be exported. The production of such hydro-electricity will not only meet the needs of Nepal and Bhutan, but will also meet power demands of Bangladesh and India. Regional cooperation can help to overcome the main impediments to hydropower development. An initiative for regional cooperation among the Himalayan countries to open the eyes the people of the region has begun since 2006 with commendable support of the World Bank. The initiative known as the Abu Dhabi Dialogue Group (ADDG) was formed with seven Himalayan countries namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan. The ADDG has so far held quite a number of meetings (more than eight meetings) and in its second meeting held in Bangkok in July 2007, it adopted a long term vision:

"A cooperative and knowledge based partnership of states fairly managing and developing the Himalayan River Systems to bring economic prosperity, peace and social harmony, environmental sustainability from the source to the sea."

The Context of Bangladesh

As far as our Bangladesh is concerned, we all know that it is a low lying delta formed by the alluvial deposits of the three mighty Himalayan rivers- the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. Bangladesh has 57 Trans Boundary Rivers, 54 are common with India meaning that all these rivers have mostly originated in India and only 03 are common with Myanmar. In fact 51 rivers, common between Bangladesh and India are within the catchment areas of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna. The catchment areas of these three mighty rivers are The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basin is a transboundary river basin with a total area of just over 1.7 million km, distributed between India (64 percent), China (18 percent), Nepal (9 percent), Bangladesh (7 percent) and Bhutan. The life and livelihood of the millions of people in Bangladesh have been revolving around the waters of these rivers over the ages. The present Government of Shaikh Hasina has planned to construct the Ganges Barrage to meaningfully utilize the Ganges Waters that it receives as per the Ganges Water Treaty. Dredging of all the major rivers of the countries under a nationwide mega project has been undertaken. The healthy effects of such dredging is already being felt as the country has not witnessed any major flood during the last five years resulting in protection of crops and establishments including railway, roads and highways worth roughly Tk.70,000 Cr. On the other hand we have seen all other countries in the neighborhood like India, Pakistan, China, Thailand- all these countries have encountered several severe floods during the last five years.

Concluding Remarks

Important point is that Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Bhutan - four countries of this region offer vast opportunities for optimal water resources development and management through collaborative efforts. The immediate need is a pragmatic approach to the management of water resources in the region and for this to happen, political commitments of the leaders are required. The Governments of this region, would, therefore need to agree on broad framework for regional cooperation by sustainable environmental politics.

The Writer is an Environmental Analyst & Associate Member, Bangladesh Economic Association.

  • Environmental Politics of Water Security in South Asia
  • Issue 36
  • Shishir Reza
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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